In this essay, I aim to challenge and de-construct many of the ways we’ve come to think in the mainstream about pre-Christian Irish mythology and its impact on our ideas of indigeneity, Iron Age religion, Irish history and Paganism. I understand that this can be a sensitive area for many people. So, if you do not appreciate food for thought and scientific facts, or are challenged by opposing perspectives, please do not read along.
There are two interesting colophons at the end of the copy of the “Taín Bó Cuailnge” within the 12th century manuscript “The Book of Leinster”, one of the most important surviving compilations of mediaeval Irish literature, mythology and genealogy. The first one, in Irish, reads:
“A blessing on everyone who will memorize the Tain faithfully in this form, and not put any other form to it.”
This is followed by a second, more dire comment, in Latin this time, which warns:
“I, who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of the story, or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some poetical figments. Some seem possible, and others not, and some are for the enjoyment of idiots.”
Translation by Thomas Kinsella, bold highlight by myself.
This is what I call a fine example of the confusing and contradictory nature of Irish mythology.
As someone who did not grow up within Irish culture (and comes thus to this culture from a clean, unbiased slate), I quickly noticed that there were several things not adding up when studying the texts which make up this meaningful and deep mythology: Where did these stories originate? How did we get to know about them? Who wrote them down, and why? But I was curious, most of all, to understand how much actual information about pre-Christian Ireland’s historical and religious context can we expect Irish mythology to offer us?
The Táin Bó Cuailnge is one of the most influential medieval Irish texts ever written. It has been called Ireland’s National Epic, and viewed by many as ancient Irish mythology that opens a window to a world that is lost, and like many before them, they have quickly assumed that the themes, godly figures and heroes included in the story must be a faithful reflection of the worldview, religion and customs of the ancient Irish. But while the story itself is set around the 1st century AD, our earliest surviving copy dates from the 12th. Should we really build our idea of what Irish spirituality was like in the Iron Age from a mediaeval Christian author writing about a tribe of “god-peoples” 1,100 years later?
In my studies I’ve come upon a good deal of common misconceptions and assumptions that (as a newcomer to the Gaelic tradition and amateur scholar myself) I believe truly get in the way of a deeper and more realistic understanding of these wonderful stories and their meanings. I’ve noticed a tendency to take Irish mythology at face value and ignore the complex cultural, spiritual and historical contexts that this precious mythology was written in.
So, in order to provide a wider perspective, I have compiled a list of 9 relevant and at times hard-to-sit-with facts that I hope will enrich and expand the experience of anyone honestly interested in the wonders of the the whimsical, dramatic, contradictory, neglected and multilayered world of Irish Mythology:
1) Written Irish mythology is NOT ancient (as Greek mythology is), but Mediaeval
Let’s get this one right off the bat: the earliest written Irish texts we have evidence for are “The Adventure of Connla” and “The Voyage of Bran”, both possibly from the early 8th century AD. This means that all the stories and legends we now think of as part of this “ancient” mythology were written down only from the 700s AD and onwards, only 1,300 years ago.
Our earliest written version of the Táin Bó Cuailnge itself, written only 900 years ago, has been compared with the Greek epic “The Iliad”. But consider, for contrast, that the Iliad was written 2,800 years ago in the 8th century BC, while Ireland was still in the Bronze Age. Books wouldn’t be produced here for another thousand years.
In Ireland, the technology that makes possible any literary composition and book production was only available via the ecclesiastical establishment. Until Christianity arrived in the mid 400s AD, there’s no evidence for any other kind of literary written form (Ogham wasn’t used for prose or verse, and there’s no physical evidence of it having existed previous to the Conversion process, no matter how many Celtic Spirituality books insist otherwise -see below-).
In the West, there is a tendency to look at and think about all other mythological traditions of the world through the classical lenses of Rome and Greece. We can’t help it, it is embedded in our cosmovision and imperialist modern culture. But it is important to keep in mind, when treading through the murky waters of extracting genuine ancient knowledge from medieval texts, that the ancient Gaelic tradition evolved and grew independently from the Continent in many ways, as much as foreign ancestral traditions like Hinduism, for example, did. But put that tradition on the hands of a small elite of learned Christians spread around Ireland and Britain in the Middle Ages, and we simply lack the cultural looking glass nowadays with which to interpret it as its original authors intended.
This is why we think in terms of “the god of this” or “the goddess of that”, a formula that probably doesn’t apply to the ancient Gaelic idea of “godhood”. The concept of the Goddess, as far as we can tell, was intertwined with the Land, she WAS the land. She wasn’t some external godly archetype hanging out in a divine paradise far up in the mountains like the Olympians. She was right here with her people, she was the land herself, and there was probably never a ONE land goddess but several regional incarnations of the same concept.
As Marie-Louise Sjoestedt puts it: “Scholars have noted the absence of a Celtic goddess of love, equivalent to Venus or Aphrodite [but] Most of the Celtic goddesses show more or less marked sexual character. To wonder that we do not find a goddess presenting this character to the exclusion of all others is to judge Celtic mythology by foreign standards, and so to condemn oneself to a misconstruction of its intimate system.”
Calling Lugh “god of the Sun” or Morrigan “goddess of war” is circumscribing them to a static, classical meaning and a fixed way of being thought of that reduces and hinders any further hope to understand them as the ancient Irish did. The relationship of the Gaels with their gods was nothing like that of the Romans or Greeks, or the Norse for that matter. Understanding this, I willingly corrected the tagline on my illustration print of Lugh from “God of the Sun” to “The One of Many Arts”.
So, whenever you’re thinking about Celtic mythology and the faithful windows into the distant, pagan past it offers, remember that our earliest written evidence is much, much more recent than most other world mythologies you may know. And besides doing without calling Irish mythology “ancient”, perhaps we should also avoid calling it “Celtic” altogether, because…
2) …the term “Celtic” is terribly misleading.
If the previous entry felt a bit bitter to taste for you all (like me) deeply passionate people about Irish heritage, hold on to your chariots for this one:
The term “Celt” is a modern nomenclature for a vastly non-specific and wide spectrum of different peoples who lived in very different places and during very different times in history. If used at all, it should be stressed that what it describes, very broadly, is a type of culture; but not the name of a one culture that was ever unified or self-perceived as a whole. The first written account of a people by the name “Keltoi” was by a Greek cartographer in the early 500s BC, and JP Mallory says in his “The Origin of the Irish”, that authors never refer to the ancient British or Irish as “Celts” until around the mid 1500s AD. The modern word, “Celt”, wasn’t coined until 200 years later in the early 1700s AD. Some scholars even posit that the term is an illusion, the differences among the peoples it represents being way too many for them to be put into the same category.
It goes without saying that the thousands of so-called “Celtic” tribes across Europe never called themselves that, and we have very little evidence that they ever constituted the one, unified and homogeneous culture as the Roman authors claimed. We also have no evidence in the Old Irish literature of the Irish ever calling themselves so, or identifying as part of a larger cultural communal unit. It has been suggested that in such a politically divided society as Ancient Ireland was, a sense of a national identity didn’t emerge until the 9th century AD with the coming of the Vikings; the first time the Irish had to share close quarters with a completely different (and in many aspects, antagonistic) cultural group. It was around this time that the pseudohistory and stories about the origins of the Irish descending from a single Iberian warrior after many waves of invasions started to be composed.
It is important to remember, then, that anything that calls itself “Celtic” begets to be asked, “In what sense, exactly?”. The beautifully articulate author Jan Fries puts it thus:
“It is such a misleadingly modern term, coined by a handful of not-too-well informed authors of antiquity, and used in a sloppy fashion by almost all popular writers. You get books that generalize on ‘Celtic Magic’, ‘Celtic Society’ and ‘Celtic Religion’ with a simple-minded carelessness that makes serious researchers shudder.
Imagine 2500 years hence, an author writing on ‘European Magic’ or ‘European Religion’. You would be delighted to learn that ‘The Europeans had bullfights, a slanting tower, wore tartan, made music on long wooden trumpets, ate lutefisk with spaghetti, kicked balls into goals (probably a fertility cult though it does sound much like the opposite), traveled in balloons, had talismanic cuckoo clocks and worshipped a wide range of deities, such as a nude man on a cross, a lamb, a pigeon, a hare, a box full of moving pictures, rectangular pieces of paper, noisy metal vehicles and small plastic boxes that were held to the ear in an obvious gesture of adoration.’ When you read about what the ‘Celts’ did or did not do, remember those mysterious Europeans.”
This generalising aspect of the term in modern times was heavily influenced by the Celtic Revival, a time around the 19th and 20th centuries when well-educated aristocrats and poets began a cultural movement based on the retrieval of Celtic culture, arts and literature from the mists of times before English colonisation. This movement constituted the cultural backdrop in which Ireland fought for its independence, and the scholars of the time were very predisposed to finding a unifying, cohesive, indigenous and sovereign identity to validate and strengthen their desired political autonomy. We would probably not even know much about Irish mythology if this herculean task hadn’t been undertaken, so we ought to be eternally grateful to the Celtic Revivalists. But it does bring home the fact that up until the 19th century, before it became fashionable to do so, nobody outside Ireland (and definitely not in America) cared much about Ireland’s native Gods.
In modern times, the term “Celt” has and still is unnecessarily overused and misused. I’m not suggesting to do without the term completely because it has become a useful way to denote a specific “kind” of culture, time-space and visual style, but it is important to use it with care. This carelessness of use and over-simplification of terms is especially poignant within the sparky and creatively-fluid world of neo-Paganism.
And if that’s the path that brought you to this article, please take a deep breath and bear with me, but…
3) …all you’ve heard in the mainstream about “Ancient Celtic Spirituality” is probably inaccurate.
Mythology doesn’t equal Religion, because the truth is that while we may learn the mythology by heart, we may still know very, very little about the specific way in which the ancients related to their gods, in what terms did they think about them, and what did they do to pacify their wrath or invoke their favours. Most of what we call “Celtic” in the spiritual sphere are modern conjectures with varying levels of archaeological validation or spiritual legitimacy, mostly based on a mythology that’s probably not a faithful reflection of ancient religious ritual.
Even as an avid seeker of the Old Ways myself, I’m always a bit suspicious of any online courses, books or groups that teach “Druidry” as if we actually had any real, certain evidence of what the Druids practiced. Any surviving accounts of what the Druids did or didn’t do comes from a bunch of Latin inscriptions in Romanised Celtic regions and a legion of classical authors in Rome and Greece, writing by hearsay and under the pressures of political propaganda at a time when Druidry was already declining in the continent. I am not judging the validity of modern Druidism practice, but I do wonder if we shouldn’t use a different term for what “Celtic paganism” is today, so as to not perpetrate the misguided idea that we have any faithful sources about what Druidism was really like in the historical past.
As Jan Fries puts it, “The entire amount of classical references to the Druids can easily be printed in less than 10 small pages (as demonstrated by T. Kendrick).”
By the time the first Irish texts began being written down, whatever existed in Ireland that could’ve been called “Druidry” by classical standards, was an institution which had ceased to exist centuries before.
In the specific Irish case, “Druidism” did last longer in Ireland than in the rest of Celticdom, but here the classical idea of a “Druid” got intermeshed with another native institution, that of the Fíli or caste of sacred, learned poets. Both social roles, which seem to have had similar functions (advisors, sages, poets, judges, genealogists, storytellers, seers, physicians, etc.), could’ve been one and the same back then, or maybe they both existed as separate entities until one absorbed the other, or one was by a byproduct of the other. We just don’t know.
Add in a good few mistranslations in the written record and the fallacy of interpreting a tradition with the looking glass of another: Magi, Sorcerer, Druid, Fili, all of these were terms used for wielders of magical powers, human or non-human, interchangeably. Jan Fries remarks how, in Irish myth, “we frequently encounter “Druids” from various provinces with nothing better to do than to assault the folks across the border for political profit”. This is far from the popular image of the Druid as a calm and wise old sage communing with nature in some magical forest grove. Modern archaeologists have postulated that there is no trace of any “druidic” activity at any of the biggest megalithic sites, and it is doubtful that the Ancient Irish saw the woods as peaceful and enchanting when they were actually very dangerous places in which to hangout after sunset.
Even the typical image of a Druid on his white robe and up an oak tree cutting mistletoe comes from a single comment by Pliny in 77 AD, and became since the Celtic Revival to modern times the go-to, mainstream image of what a Druid was and what they did all day.
Well-intended yet misguided authors and practitioners, whether by cluelessness, profit-seeking or lukewarm research skills, have tended in modern times to apply the term “Celtic” or “Druidic” to a wide variety of spiritual beliefs, therapies, practices and customs; some old, some new, some mixes of both. Whether many of those customs are possibly based on or have been preserved from old, genuine traditions, the modern systems of cult are for the most part experiencing something that is certainly quite different from what the Ancestors did, and the term is overused as a badge of authenticity. And while in some cases it may be applicable, as in a book of folk legends from the “Celtic Countries”, I can’t help but wince when confronted with disheartening concepts like “Ancient Celtic Tree Zodiac”.
The word ancient is what gets me the most.
Like the scholars from the Celtic Revival times, who poured over the medieval tracts and regional folklore in search of an ancient, indigenous tradition to find a framework in which to develop the identity of their people without the Crown’s yoke, 20th century Pagan authors have set out to find ancient Gods, worship customs and an intelligible archaic wisdom in the old literature; and where they couldn’t find them, they simply made them up.
The Ogham alphabet is a very clear example of this. You’ll come across many modern authors and practitioners preaching about the tree calendar of the Celts. Ogham has been identified by many as a sort of secret druidical alphabet, an actual zodiac partition of the year into 13 different tree months, it’s been called the “Irish rune system” and a hundred other things.
But our strongest evidence (besides the mss. “In Lebor Ogaim” and its section in the “Book of Ballymote”) are the Ogham stones, which date to around the 400s AD and were used almost exclusively to write memorial inscriptions in Latin and an early version of Old Irish. Only a small elite class of Christian men of learning would’ve known Latin in the 5th century, so it is very unlikely that Ogham was developed by the native people (ironically, Christian Irish literature centuries later attributed the creation of Ogham to the Túatha Dé champion Ogma). Though there’s much speculation and mystery about its cryptic nature, experts like Damian McManus aren’t so sure of its practical uses.
Even if the last pagan Irish druids did borrow the alphabet and used it to carve divination staves as many modern Pagans claim, we have no evidence for it.
The notion that there existed once upon a time a druidical, celestial tree alphabet in ancient Ireland was only first described by Robert Graves in his book “The White Goddess”, published in 1948. More poet than scholar, Graves went to great lengths to present an ancient Celtic system of divination and astrology for which he had no evidence, even as his own grandfather (who was the president of the Royal Irish Academy and a leading authority on Ogham) regarded his ideas as spurious. Ignoring his and the scholar MacAlister’s warnings, the ideas about the Ogham tree zodiac and other aspect concepts about Gaelic spirituality that Graves imagined in his book took a hold in the neo-pagan tradition and have been considered genuine, ancient and academically sound since the mid 20th century.
The mad thing is that one of the most fundamental characteristics of the “Celtic” traditions is the wide space they always allowed for innovation, development and intensely individual imagination; and, yes, “making things up”. There is nothing wrong with developing a Zodiac system which taps into one or more aspects of Gaelic tradition. In fact, as guardians of those traditions in modern times, it is our duty to keep developing and protecting it from becoming stagnant. A new thing that expands on and contributes to the culture can never be an issue. The problem is insisting on a sense of authenticity by falsely claiming (or believing) something is ancient, and thus genuine. Particularly since…
4) …we have very little archaeological evidence of what the cult to the Gods was like in pre-Christian Ireland.
Mythology isn’t the same as Archaeology, either. What is sometimes hard to keep in mind about the relationship between the Ancient Irish and the divinities they worshipped, is that we have insufficient archaeological evidence to form a complete picture in our minds, and that both disciplines have often very different things to say about the same thing: Mythology tells us that the long, parallel dykes running towards the summit of the Hill of Tara was the site of a great Banqueting Hall; archaeology tells us it was a (probably ceremonial) pre-Christian pathway.
So what do we know? Luckily, we’re not at a complete loss. We know, from linguistics and folk traditions not only from Ireland, that the early Gaelic Irish were very probably animists, which means that they saw the world as alive in each of its own expressions. The world around them was aware and full of entities, from the mountain to the meadow. The King of the province, up in the hillfort, may be symbolically marrying the Land Goddess to ensure a wholesome harvest and a long reign, but for the farmer in the valley down below, the spirit of the freshwater well was powerful enough to watch out over her family in times of need.
We know, through the ancient cairns and mounds and their sunrise and sunset alignments, that what came to be known as the “Celtic Wheel of the Year” was first conceived by a much earlier Neolithic people who had already a sense of the sacred times of the yearly cycle and their connection to agriculture, as well as a very real need to distinguish between the times for planting and harvesting their crops. Turns out that the Wheel is actually not really “Celtic” if it existed over 6,000 years before the “Celts” ever stepped foot in Ireland!
We also know that the Ancient Irish probably had a strong custom of giving votive offerings to the deep waters. Hoards of coins, weapons and gold ornaments have been found in rivers, bogs and lakes. These were expensive, exclusive and rare objects (to make or come by) to be tossing into the bog without a very strong spiritual reason to do so. We’ve also found what looks like human sacrifices in the bog:
Other evidence we have comes from burial customs and the objects people where buried with, but in Ireland there’s so much still unexcavated and unknown, and what we do have is unclear and undeniably tampered with (like the Vikings opening up megalithic cairns in search for gold or careless 20th century archaeologists). We’ve burial vessels, we’ve charred human bones, we’ve Neolithic petroglyphs carved onto the rock, we’ve stone circles, we’ve beads and ornaments, bull-roarers and animal bones, but all from different times and definitely not enough to get more than some broad assumptions which are based on common sense anyway (if there’s human remains, we can safely presume the cairns had something to do with the idea of death, at least).
Finally, there are some very relevant godly figures from Irish mythology and folklore that are also found outside of Ireland, adding strength to their possible archaic origins, though not necessarily boosting their “indigenous” claim: The legendary king figures of Lugh and Nuadu appear both in British and continental traditions as Nodens or Lugus (the city of “Lyon”, the heart of Celtic Gaul, was called “Fort of Lug”, just as the small town of Dunlewey in Co. Donegal and many other European placenames). While we have less than 50 identifiable figures in Irish mythology that can be identified as “main gods”, surviving Gaulish inscriptions mention around 375 god names, of which are appear only once. Clearly, what we have access to is only a small part of what once was.
Even the Goddess Brigit, one of the pillars of modern Celtic Spirituality, might’ve been originally a regional Leinster goddess linked to an Irish tribe, the Briganti (and a tribe of the same name existed in Britain as well). For such a popular spiritual figure in modern times, Brigid makes just one and only one appearance in the whole existing mythological narrative, as one of the Túatha Dé keening for her son’s death in the Battle of Moytura (written in the late 9th c. AD). Her only other mention in the rest of the mediaeval literature is her entry in “Cormac’s Glossary” (also from the late 9th c. AD), which seemingly out of nowhere ascends her from side-character in one tale to a major goddess of the pagan Irish. It is extremely possible that the idea of Brigid as a patron of Ireland didn’t come to be until she got mixed (possibly as part of a political confrontation about ecclesiastical supremacy) with her Christian namesake, St. Brigid of Kildare, thus making the worship of this figure, in her pagan or Christian guise, definitely not ancient. This realisation needn’t imply that the modern customs associated with Brigid are suddenly invalid or useless. I still put my green mantle cloak outside for the night every Imbolc, regardless of the antiquity of that custom, and that’s my point: If the myth of Brigid has brought anyone comfort, empowerment or any other positive impact, then that’s what matters, not how old the custom originally is. Seems to me a more genuine way to gauge the validity of something.
When judging Indigeneity, we must also bear in mind that there is no clear moment in recorded history from which we can say “Aha! This is where Irishness begins!”. In purely historical terms (leaving the national myth of the Irish Invasions and origins for later), all we know in very broad terms is this:
That a Mesolithic culture arrived in Ireland and settled in the land as hunter-gatherers around 8,000 BC. That a Neolithic farming culture came either at once or in waves around 4,000 BC, either absorbed or destroyed the previous occupiers, and built the megalithic monuments that dot the Irish landscape today. That around 2,400 BC, a metal-working culture we can start identifying as Proto-Gaelic in terms of language and customs found its way here as a somewhat shapeless entity and launched the Bronze Age; a culture which over time and with way more exchanges with the continent and Britain than the pseudohistory invites us to think, eventually crystalized into our modern idea of Iron Age (or Gaelic) Ireland (from 500 BC until the coming of Christianity around 400 AD).
There are clearly not enough details to help us paint a complete picture of what the reality of this mythology was like for these people. And so we come to the unavoidable and undeniable fact that…
5) …all we know about the “Irish Gods” was written down by Christian Monks and Sacred Poets during a long period of constant cultural change
This is one of the major misconceptions I’ve come across, and it is probably one of the most important in this list. If you take just the one thing forth from this article, let it be this:
Every single Irish written record we have about pre-Christian Ireland and the place of its native gods within it, comes from the pens of a small group of learned Christian men, most of whom were monastic scholars and in many cases learned poets, writing during several centuries of profound social, political and spiritual shifts.
Every legend, every character trait, every name and every story about Ireland’s native gods you’ve ever heard or read, was either originally copied down from oral traditions or composed by Christian men of letters for the enjoyment of an elite aristocracy. Furthermore, even when they are referred to as such in these stories, we never see the Irish gods receiving worship, offerings or sacrifices; and though immortal, many of them are well capable of dying. Of course, it is not surprising that a Christian scribe would not create any depictions of pagan worship, but they did attribute a surprising amount of magical and fantastical power to this tribe of “enhanced beings”. Why even include them at all?
It is really hard to get our heads around how meaningful this is. Even though that much of the literary material could’ve been based on archaic traditions or oral surviving folklore (and if it did, we have no way of measuring how old those traditions were at the time), ignoring the detail that this is our only source of mythological material is a fatal blow to any realistic and honorable attempt to understand it, either by amateur and academic scholars or spiritual seekers. Even savvy people, authors and cultural or social media figures who should know better, seem merely to glide over the fact that without Christianity we would probably never have heard of An Dagda, the Fomorians, Oisín or Etain’s Wooing. True, not all texts come from specifically monastic environments. The sacred poets composed a large body of secular tradition, but they were also Christians and this didn’t start happening until hundreds of years after the demise of paganism anyway.
Even the existence of a genuinely cohesive Irish pantheon (a family of well-established and inter-connected, contemporary god figures as the Greek family of Zeus) is a flaky possibility. Ireland was, and remained after the conversion, a decentralized and politically fragmented society, with not enough cultural common spaces to develop a national pantheon. (even though the Táin Bó Cuailnge is set in the early Iron Age and depicts the provincial capitals as residential, bustling centres of royal human activity, we know from the archaeological evidence that these sites were already ancient ruins at the historical time of the story’s events).
Rather, it is possible that the lay people relied more on location-specific deities for their spiritual needs, and had not much time nor care for whoever the enemy tribe was praying to beyond the borderlands. Even the mere concept of a “pantheon” could’ve very well been a Christian import into the narrative from the classical views. Many of the themes, ideas and concepts that make up the Irish scéalta are more likely to have come from classical (and of course, Biblical) sources than some archaic, genuine tradition kept alive orally down through generations.
Mark Williams, in his indispensable “Ireland’s Immortals”, suggests 2 positions about this dilemma: The Nativist view, which held sway until the 1970s, expounds that semi-pagan Fíli intentionally set to preserve pre-Christian material, the Irish identity seen as something living in the mouths of the people and able to survive cultural onslaught. This view reinforces the idea that these stories show us a good likeness of the deities worshipped in Iron Age Ireland (which is reassuring to us lovers of Irish mythology, who have next to nothing to work with without the Christian literature). The Anti-Nativist view, more popular with scholars nowadays, insists that the Fíli and learned Christian scholars merged into a single literate class that was well aligned with the intentions and agendas of the ecclesiastical establishment.
Interestingly, the earliest mention we possess of what came to be called an “Irish god” is Mannanán Mac Lir’s appearance in the previously mentioned “The Voyage of Bran”. Even though he is described magically riding through the waves, he is never referred to as a god, but as a man (“fer” in Old Irish). And though the story was written in the 8th c. AD, it is supposed to occur in the long, distant past. Mannanán gives 2 different prophecies to the voyagers: He predicts the coming of the saviour Jesus Christ, and also foresees that he would raise a foster-son called Mongán (a historical Ulster king who died in 695 AD, before the story was composed). I can’t overemphasize how telling it is that the first appearance of an Irish god in written record depicts him delivering a prophecy of the birth of Jesus.
And it wasn’t just religious bias either. Political propaganda and the tracing of ancient, noble lineages were of paramount importance in underscoring a ruler’s authority. Like Mannanán fostering king Mongán, many of these stories strove to connect a ruler’s ancestors with the exalted figures of the distant past in an attempt to justify the validity of their identity claims. It is almost endearing that this is exactly what many people are doing with “Celtic mythology” nowadays.
Besides the problem of authorship, we must take into account that most of the Old Irish scéalta were written during a period of intense cultural tension, between the 8th and 11th centuries AD, when the Viking invasions threw the consistency of Christian Ireland into turmoil. A very rapid and deep cultural shift like that has to have impacted, inspired or influenced any literary composition of the period. And we also must consider the element of historical accuracy: Jan Fries points at how the heroes of Irish tales look very much like how the classical continental authors had imagined them to be, but the archaeological evidence usually has a different story to tell about the periods in which these tales are set in. As a very good example, both Jan Fries and JP Mallory point to the fact that mediaeval Irish tales generally describe very long swords, but archaeological excavations tends to unearth short ones. In fact, the shortest Viking sword found in Ireland is still 10 cms longer than the longest Irish sword.
Finally, before we move on to the disconcerting realm of Irish Pseudohistory, there’s one last detail to make everything even much more convoluted:
The Old Irish scéalta from the early period (7th to 11th centuries AD) are only known to us via large compilations that were produced around the 12th century and later on, when the sociopolitical context of Ireland had once again shifted dramatically: Our understanding of the earliest tradition is heavily impacted by what its compilators centuries later deemed worthy of being preserved. It is indeed very hard to learn when and by whose hand any of these texts were originally composed. Williams explains how the “Wooing of Étain”, for example, is mentioned in a mediaeval tales-list from the 10th century (so we know it existed before then), but our earliest surviving version of the story is a partial copy from the early 12th century, though we do have a complete copy from the 14th. Likewise, “The Battle of Moytura” survives in a single manuscript from the 16th century, but was originally composed in the 9th and heavily added to in the 11th. Through language shifts and hundreds of years, how can we say anything for certain about any of these texts?
Be this as it may, the troupes of mediaeval Christian scholars and sacred poets eventually managed to compose a new myth which offered the very first Irish national narrative about its own origins, and became the mainstream official “story of ancient Ireland” for the following centuries and up to modern times:
6) A national “pseudohistory” was composed into a cohesive narrative that explained the origins of the Irish and “humanised” the Gods.
One more thing that Mythology isn’t the same as? History. The Irish scholars claimed to possess a recorded history that extended farther back in time than that of the Greeks, Romans and even the Chinese. Why did the mediaeval Irish believe they knew the names and dates of Kings that existed in what today we call pre-History?
It is very likely that some early form of the main characters in these stories were, indeed, based on actual events, individuals or native divinities, but as Williams points out, the authors seem to be quite undecided as to how to fit the gods into a Christian cosmovision, and thus you find them depicted as merciful angels that herald the coming of Christianity, or unfallen humans untouched by sin and thus invisible and immortal, half-fallen angels trapped in limbo, human sorcerers, and the very common Middle Ages term for any form of pre-Christian deity: straight-out demons.
Even the term “Túatha Dé Danann” has only come into use after the 10th century, before which the native gods were simply referred to as “god-people”, “god-men” or “god-kindred”. That use of “god” sounds more like an adjective than a noun to me. It opens the question if the “Tribe of of the Goddess Danu” is an accurate translation of the term at all. Maybe the correct term would be “The Godlike Tribe”? (the nature of Ireland’s godly people is beyond the scope of this essay, but if you really want to go down that particular rabbit-hole, Mark Williams’ “Ireland’s Immortals” can’t be recommended enough).
But a look at the pseudohistory of Ireland and the purposeful artificial creation of a national narrative can at least offer some possibilities to this puzzle:
One of the most popular Irish myths and one that is referenced and referred by many authors and neo-pagans alike, is that of the Invasions of Ireland: how after the biblical Flood, the peoples of Cessair, Partholón, Nemed, Fir Bolgs and Túatha Dé Danann consecutively invaded the island, occasionally battling the Fomorians, and the eventual arrival of the Sons of Míl from Iberia, who finally defeated the Túatha Dé and conquered Ireland. This myth and its many versions all come forth from the “Lebor Gábala Érenn”, or “Book of the Takings of Ireland”, a treatise in prose and verse from the early 11th century (though parts of it existed as early as the 9th century, and it was anyway continually added to and expanded over subsequent generations).
The Lebor Gábala was one of the most influential texts ever produced in Ireland, which mixed the work of several poets with original prose text, written at a time when the learned classes were undergoing a new wave of deep cultural shifts. The Norman newcomers showed the same love for burning down monasteries as the Vikings had, and the Fíli’s role as wandering storytellers and singers of praise was quickly diminishing (their patronages and funding were being redirected to the monasteries). So, with less storytellers on the road and invaders with arsonist inclinations, it follows that many written and oral traditions began being collected. Middle Irish replaced Latin and Old Irish as the by-default language of scholarship, and massive manuscript compilations were produced.
The Book of the Takings was basically an attempt to find a place in Christian chronology for the Irish people, by the combination of the three chronologies these scholars knew at the time: their own indigenous tradition, the classical authors of Greece and Rome, and of course, the Bible (a particular tough one which not even once mentioned the pious and devout Irish or where did they came from). One of its biggest innovations was the full-on depiction of the Túatha Dé as an actual human people, just one more race in a chain of consequent invasions. They still possessed supernatural powers, but not due to godhood or angelic nature but by learnt sorcery during their wanderings across four magical cities in the north of the world (no other Irish text ever mentions these four mysterious schools of magic).
As another way of highlighting their human nature, the tract also includes a list of their Genealogies, since as we’ve seen lineage tracing was still a highly relevant factor in Gaelic society in terms of rank, authority and validation. Who your predecessors had been and what had they done would determine your position in society. The early texts describe the genealogies of over 20,000 individuals and 2,000 dynasties. Far from suggesting a pantheon of native gods, the composition of a family tree for the Túatha Dé Danann was a way to insist on their human nature.
The poet Echoaid Ua Flainn (one of the main four poets on whose work the Book of Invasions was built upon), wrote about them that “they belong properly among mortals” and that “though we enumerate them, we do not worship them”. Not very surprising coming from an Armagh cleric in mediaeval Ireland. The scholar-poet Flann Mainistrech of Monasterboice (d. 1056) went even further and composed a satirical poem where each member of the Túatha Dé meets a pathetic, ironic demise based on their own attributes, like the physician Dian Cecht dying of sickness or Óengus drowning in the river Boyne.
Of course, there are earlier texts which contradict all this. “Whence did the Irish Originate” (written around 800s AD) states that the Túatha Dé were indeed the native peoples of Ireland, and the “Battle of Moytura” (900s AD) also lacks any reference about the Tuatha Dé having been invaders. Of course, we’ve much reason to believe that in many cases the scribes may have believed that their writings were accurate historical accounts (the chronology of the Bible was, after all, commonly taken as solid History), but at the end of the day, the archaeological truth is of more relevance than the author’s beliefs: Scholars have demonstrated that the popular notion of the Gaels descending from Míl Espáine (not a personal name but an Irish translation of the Latin “Miles Hispaniae”, meaning “Spanish soldier”) and coming from Iberia, was borrowed by Irish writers from the encyclopedist Isidore of Seville. His work was a sort of mediaeval Wikipedia database which the Irish authors consulted and drew from very, very often, and he had wrongly connected Ireland’s classical name, Hibernia, with (h)Iberia, the land he thought of as the “mother of all races”.
Mark Williams says “It is a tribute to the ingenuity of Ireland’s learned classes that the huge edifice of the Book of Invasions could be built upon such slight foundations.”, and JP Mallory has concluded that the “Iron Age” world depicted in the Ulster tales does not reflect the historical evidence very well: most details regarding landscape, technology, customs and materials in the stories belong historically in the early mediaeval period which produced them.
Regardless, this narrative prevailed for centuries and became the standard explanation of the origin of the Irish and their relationship with their “native gods”, who were now stripped of their supernatural nature, circumscribed to the distant past and even militarily defeated by the Irish themselves.
The old pagan gods (and whatever traditions which remained attached to them) could now be safely accommodated within a Christian cosmology, and even used by sacred poets and Christian authors as allegorical figures in the same way scholars all throughout Christendom had always used classical God-figures to create metaphors, mnemonics and games of meaning. It is important to keep in mind that this particular work was mostly compiled by the Fíli more than Christian clerics. Even though at the time an individual could perfectly be a Fíli and still belong to the ecclesiastical realm, by definition the work of the Fili was intrinsically secular (religion-neutral). To ensure their survival (and anxious about being absorbed into the monastic system, which was the only other body capable of supporting men of learning), they had great need for genuinely indigenous cultural tools that would ascertain their social caste’s connection to the ancient traditions as a way of finding validation in a society quickly running out of need for them. Since the gods had been made into simple humans, it was safe and acceptable to attach them to their literary tradition as fine examples of their own art’s antiquity and worth.
Mark Williams remarks: “Scholars have long lamented that Irish myth is not really a mythology in the usual Indo-European way: archaic elements have been inextricably interwoven with biblical and mediaeval material. This mythopoetic tendency accelerated remarkably in the 10th and 11th centuries, with the result that in this period “Irish mythology” actually came into existence as a distinct cultural category”.
Ireland was now equipped, for the first time, with a unifying origin story that combined its supernatural past with its natural Christian doctrine, but fortunately, the result ended up being vague and semi-successful. Whereas the Invasions story is still the de-facto Irish origin myth, the idea that the “native gods” were either damned or exalted humans didn’t really take hold in the Irish people, and thus a rich folklore (like the stories from the Ulster and Fenian cycles, which once again turn all that we thought we knew about the Tuatha Dé on its head), kept blossoming and bloomed in the following centuries.
With the coming of the English and the cultural genocide inflicted upon the Irish people and culture, this origin narrative was increasingly dismissed by the colonial power. But even in the early 1600s, the scholar Micheál O’Cleirigh along 3 others learned men produced after 4 years of work the “Annals of the Four Masters”, an annalistic compilation of Irish history from the times of the Flood up to 1616, boosting the Invasions narrative and insisting on the antiquity and veracity of its ancient worth. Skepticism regarding this claim began also to grow as the Royal Irish Academy started to collect archaeological artifacts in 1758, but the “Annals of the Four Masters” was only published and translated in the mid 1800s, just in time for the eager Celtic Revivalists (more interested in discovering a patriotic identity than understanding historical sciences) to be the first ones to read it and take it up as an undeniably solid base from which to build up again their National Myth.
And even though this whole world has been made so accessible to us thanks to them, ultimately we cannot deny that…
7) …we lack the lingüistic and cultural skills to experience these texts in their originally intended forms.
Unless you’re a very well versed person of learning, you probably aren’t able to read either Latin, Old or Middle Irish, the languages that Irish mythology was originally composed in. Even if you’re fluent in modern Gaeilge, you’d have a hard time navigating your way through a sea of ever changing ways of speech and grammar, passages in Latin and regional spellings of words that haven’t been used for a thousand years. Even those scholars who have mastered Old Irish oftentimes can’t agree on what exactly is the meaning of a passage they’re translating, because this literature was also the product of a brilliant, eloquent and articulated learned class whose main skill revolved around clever, complex forms of poetry; using language to create allegories, hidden meanings, riddles and other stimulations of the mind. Many of them, specially the Fíli class, were expert weavers of words and meaning, and some of the finest poets the mediaeval world has produced. It is undeniable that a huge part, message and essence of what these texts meant not only for those who heard them but also to those who first composed them, is lost when converting them to modern English. This is even more so when reading the mythology through the modern retellings and updated versions of the originals that many Celtic Revivalists (like WB Yeats or Lady Gregory) composed in the early 20th century. By definition, they couldn’t help infusing the original stories with their own interpretations and cultural biases in their well-meaning re-tellings (and, don’t forget, they were very predisposed to and in need of finding an archaic authenticity).
And even though we owe them a lot, this is the first (and usually, only) aspect in which most people have read Irish mythology in the last century. Whatever inaccurate interpretations, biases or misconceptions they had were carried on, and became the mainstream view down to the modern times: Like Thor and the Asgardians, the Túatha Dé Danann are actual characters within the Marvel Comics Universe, and their description in that link is a cocktail of semi accurate and foreign concepts that reflects the lukewarm concern for authenticity that the mainstream has always shown Irish mythology.
There also exists something undeniably colonial about reading Irish mythology in English. One of the most unfortunate effects of the linguistic and cultural onslaught inflicted upon the Irish in colonial times (and the way the language has been and is taught in Irish schools nowadays) is that most Irish people only experience their own mythology through the language of their colonisers, with the heart-breaking byproduct of finding a good deal of people in Ireland interested in their Irish heritage and affairs, eager to talk or learn about Irish things, but very hesitant to develop the skill to say or read anything IN Irish. Author Alexei Kondratiev calls this “unconscious colonial prejudice”, a leftover sense of safety by a once-colonised people of embracing in modern times only those parts of their own culture which the colonising power had or has deemed acceptable, like Irish music, while strongly resisting other aspects that the coloniser State deemed unworthy, like the Irish language.
Languages are an ever-changing thing, and even more so in their oral forms. Jan Fries points to the inevitable changes of speech through time (like Ogham Irish, Old Irish, Middle Irish, etc.) and space (like regional and provincial dialects, which are still present in modern Irish), indicating how these stories, if they stem from an oral tradition, surely had to be innovated upon or re-adapted regularly. Sure, many of these stories were probably composed originally in verse, which could sustain the integrity of the original work, but without any cultural, social or religious pressure to preserve the original form (like the ancient Hindu texts, whose whole thing is to be recited in its original written form), a number of variations and versions would organically emerge from a single hearing of a particular story.
With so much potential for distortion, how can we believe we can find anything indigenous-Irish in the Gaelic written records? And once again, we come to a crossroads, since…
8) …”Indigenous” and “Gaelic” Spirituality are two very different things.
I remember the first time I visited a Neolithic “passage tomb”. It was “Cairn T” in Loughcrew, Co. Meath. I was still just a foreign, wonder-eyed seeker who had spent the last half year devouring all and any books on Irish mythology he could find, but hadn’t really gotten the historical aspects right just yet. I knew from the legends that this was a fairy mound, a “síd”, an abode of the Gods, a gate to the Otherworld, a magical temple aligned with the sunrises of sacred days into which the Irish deities had retired after the coming of the Gael. I knew they were old, but history and myth were still too mixed in my budding understanding to put it all together properly. All I knew is that they were houses of the Irish Gods, and it was a transformative experience to actually enter such a site, and stand in awe at the carved symbols and silence I found in there.
But the truth is that these structures were built by a certain people in the Neolithic period, thousands of years before any culture or language resembling anything like “Gaelic” or “Celtic” even existed. If they were indeed spiritual places (and I’m sure they were), the people who built the cairns knew nothing of Midir, Boann or Tír na nÓg; and if they did they probably called them (and related to them) in a very different way than their Iron Age posteriors, or us.
Eventually, I understood that any association of the Gaelic gods with these ancient sites could only have been a later development. Funnily enough, far from taking away from my experience, this realisation only boosted my wonder. The fact that there had existed a people in Ireland, thousands of years before the coming of the Gaels, feeling inclined to invest so much time and effort in building these sun-oriented wombs of the earth spoke to me of an even older, deeper and certainly most “endemic” mystery to Ireland’s past than anything we think we supposedly know about the religion of our Iron Age ancestors.
And yet both systems, “Indigenous” and “Gaelic”, retrofeed each other to great lengths. As we’ve seen, any basic “Celtic Spirituality” guide will not fail to mention the Wheel of the Year as one of the pillars on which this system is based. But the fact that the Neolithic monuments have alignments with the equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days that make up the 8 Wheel of the Year festivals that the Celts were said to observe, completely puts down the notion that this was a uniquely “Celtic” development, even when those same 8 dates are so crucial to the Gaelic tradition in the present. This poses an awkward question about the origins and indigeneity of the modern Celtic tradition that makes most Irish people (and modern Pagans particularly) sift uncomfortably.
These overlaps between Indigenous and Gaelic beliefs also applies to deities: I remember learning Loughcrew’s name in Irish, “Slieve na Cailleach”, usually translated as “Hill of the Hag” and pointing at the figure of an Cailleach, the winter queen, the old, stern yet wise grandmother, a particularly present archetype within the modern Celtic traditions. I was still a newcomer to all this, but how had I never heard of her before, after combing through and reading so many books on Irish mythology? The Cailleach is never mentioned as part of the Túatha Dé Danann or at all in any of the mediaeval literature, and yet she is very present in several place-names and folklore in Ireland, and is considered to be a genuine, ancient Irish goddess by many. What was going on here?
Lar Dooley outlines the possibility in his upcoming book “Out of the Darkness”, that the Old Wise Woman (a common archetype for many Indigenous cultures around the world) was an ancient figure revered by the Neolithic people who built the monuments. A figure of such spiritual impact that her stories, features and legacy got intertwined with the Land itself, showing up in place-names and geographical features all around Ireland. I find it extremely curious that if such a figure was still so relevant to the Gaelic-speaking ancient Irish as the place-names indicate, how come the medieval literature never mentions her? Is this an example of a very ancient, endemic and genuine deity that survived through thousands of years by hiding in the Land (as Irish mythology tells us the Túatha Dé did) until the time was right to emerge again? Was she purposefully left out? Or have we just not found evidence (yet) of a mediaeval text that does refer to her?
The sad truth is that we can never be sure. We probably never will be, and that is my whole point:
Most people today who feel an attraction to the spiritual tradition of pagan Ireland, are painfully unaware that their modern concepts, beliefs and ideas of pre-Christian Ireland were created and designed by Christianity itself; and that there was an indigenous spiritual tradition here for thousands of years before the Gaels and their gods. Only by accepting this fact can anyone move forward into a deeper, truer understanding of pre-Christian Irish mythology, history and religion.
I am not attempting to rain on anyone’s spiritual parade or diminish the importance of Irish mythology (to which I’ve pretty much dedicated my life), I actually find this wonderfully inspiring. It means that we get to decide for ourselves what our Spirituality is. We get to live it, we get to build it and embody it.
The most respectful and expansive way we can relate to Irish mythology, I find, is by being as authentically Irish as we can be when approaching it: Observe all sides, consider the possibilities, set nothing in stone, be critical, ask why and how, experience this thing with joy and wonder and, when ready, let loose the power of imbas an imagination to create something new and worthwhile with it. Because…
9) …we may never know, but we sure as f*eck may REMEMBER
How does a God or Goddess from the ancient past first come to be? One could argue that they emerged as a psychological reflection of early humans in response to outside phenomena. Thunder, water, rainbows, death, disease, bloom, birth, animals and moonlight needed an explanation.
But I think that the ancient pagan deities probably were (specially in Ireland) also examples of excellence. Forces to appease or worship for sure, but also models of skill and proficiency that the people could look up to for guidance and emulation. This stimulated personal growth and self-discovery, in contrast to later, wider religions which tell us that we’re already shaped in the form and image of our Creator and gives us a pre-made behavioural template to follow or else. And ironically, like the authors of the Book of Invasions, the more I study this subject the more I am convinced that the old Gods could’ve been, long, long ago, humans. This is called the “euhemeristic” view, an approach to mythology which presumes it to have originated from real historical events or personages.
But my argument, unlike the Irish mediaeval writers, is not meant to demean them, but quite the opposite: I believe they were not regular people, but exalted, skilled and wise people that excelled in what they did and performed great deeds. Heroes who returned from their journeys. Awakened individuals who had ventured into unknown realms (internal or external), faced shadows and death there and were reborn with the acquisition of a new power that could now be shared with the Tribe. There are still people like this today, all around us. It is the Hero’s Journey, the road that every human who ever lived must take. Some survive it, some don’t, and some become gods. We’ve evidence in ancient Greece for the practice of “hero-worship” and the process of deification, whereas the inspiring journey of a remarkable individual grows and grows through the ages and becomes a legend that people pray to, hoping to find the Hero’s qualities inside themselves.
I believe that their memory and later worship was so engrained in the ancient Irish that indeed the Christian monks couldn’t help remembering them, even within a cosmology that couldn’t sustain them. At the same time, for that very reason, I do not believe their stories reflect much evidence of who these deities were and how were they related to the people. For years I’ve studied the nature and science of these ancient sites and stories, and even though I love them and they continue to inspire and guide my path, I recognise I am still very far away from any sort of straightforward, objective understanding of what they mean. There’s simply not enough evidence. But that’s okay. Maybe we’re not supposed to know in that way.
Far from taking away from the wonder and magic Irish mythology holds, I find this view and all this scholarly uncertainty increasingly motivating: When we reach the limits of what scientific evidence can tell us, we’ve no other choice to listen to the Land itself. Scholarly exploration can only bring us so far, after which all that’s left to do is get out there and go directly to the source.
And when you climb a sacred hill in the predawn light to sit in silence amongst some of the oldest human structures ever built in our known history, when you close your mouth and let the landscape reveal its secrets to you, when you make an offering or play the drums to call upon these energies, or clean a holy well, when you take whatever little you can know for sure about this ancient mysteries and make a vow to align your life to its values in an curious, life-affirming, humble and grateful way; and when you face whatever forces inside you keep you from doing so, we may remember.
We may remember, because maybe the Túatha Dé were people, just like you and I, bettering themselves in a challenging world, and there’s an uninterrupted thread that runs from all of us back through time to them. We may remember what it meant to live in balance with Nature. We may remember the reasons to strive for becoming good at something, anything, as long as it can be put in service of both Tribe and Land as well as yourself.
As present guardians and caretakers of this tradition, it is our sacred duty to safeguard this balance of critical research and daring leaps of faith. To protect it from being used for self-serving agendas which do not nurture it, and misunderstood by those who claim to have any certainty over it. And, most importantly, to keep infusing new life into it, re-molding and adapting its expression for its appliance in modern times. A tradition that is genuine, not because of its supposed antiquity but because it is a symbol and example of our Irish capacity for creative resilience and imagination. I think of Lugh when I need strength, I talk to Morrigan when I need to be honest with myself, and I thank the Cailleach for every blessing I have in my life. Not because the old stories taught me to do so, but because I’ve found those very qualities and presences within myself while wandering out in the Irish landscape, and the mythology offers me a delightful array of figures through which to interpret them. I was able to hear, and I am starting to remember. I am thankful to have access to this unique mythology and stunningly powerful stories, but I am humbly reminded that whatever is listening when we drum up in the hills is much older, unknowable and encompassing than any story ever imagined by Man, Pagan or Christian, ancient or recent.
Let us not only look to the past to find our way, but to the present too. Let us study and learn what clues the past can offer, and reinvent them for a better tomorrow. Work with whatever form you want to give to the Old gods, just make sure they’re your own and not somebody else’s. Keep rejoicing in the amazing wisdom of these old stories, which remind us the ancestral respect for skill and its sharing. And don’t forget that behind the glittering world of Celtic Ireland lays a whole, vastly unexplored realm of deeper, indigenous wisdom and wonder to find.
If we can be proud of our own skill and capacity for growth and innovation instead of seeking validation from the long, distant unknowable past, then the Irish tradition will for sure once again be as it surely was in the mists of its own origins: A tradition meant for the enjoyment of Heroes, and not of idiots.
“Scepticism regarding ancient traditions may be carried too far, as well as a credulous faith in their truth, and it is often more dangerous to science. Every legend, every myth contains a kernel of truth, if we could only remove the husk of fable which enveloped it.” – W. K. Sullivan
- Mark Williams, “Irelands Immortals”
- Jan Fries, “Cauldron of the Gods”
- JP Mallory, “The Origin of the Irish“
- JP Mallory, “In Search of the Irish Dreamtime”
- Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, “Gods and Heroes of the Celts”
- Peter Berresford Ellis, “The Fabrication of ‘Celtic’ Astrology” (article)
- Alexei Kondratiev, “Celtic Rituals”
Very grateful to Saraí Humble, Ali Isaac, Sean Fitzgerald, Jimmy Billings and Shane Cody for proof-reading and contributing valuable feedback to the research of this essay.
Header photograph by Garrett White.